Saint of the Day – 11 April – St Guthlac (674–715) Monk, Hermit, Ascetic. St Guthlac was a Christian saint from Lincolnshire in England. He is particularly venerated in the Fens of eastern England where many Churches are dedicated to him. His sister is venerated as Saint Pega, an anchoress. His body is incorrupt.
St Guthlac was a saint from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. He was a warrior in the Mercian border lands who, after nine years of fighting, had a religious conversion and became a hermit in Crowland, in Lincolnshire, where he lived in solitude on an island in the middle of a marsh.
Felix, his biographer, tells us that Guthlac was born roughly one year later than Bede, around 674 and died in 715. He came from a tribe named the Guthlacingas. Having given up his life as a soldier, he became a monk at the abbey of Repton at the age of 24, under the Abbess. (Repton was a double monastery.) Feeling that he needed isolation in order to better contemplate God, Guthlac retreated to the Fens and took up residence in an ancient burial mound which had been partially excavated by treasure hunters.
Guthlac built a small oratory and cells in the side of a plundered barrow on the island, and he lived there until his death on 11 April in 715. Felix, writing within living memory of Guthlac, described his hermit’s life:
“Now there was in the said island a mound built of clods of earth which greedy comers to the waste had dug open, in the hope of finding treasure there, in the side of this there seemed to be a sort of cistern and in this Guthlac, the man of blessed memory, began to dwell, after building a hut over it. From the time when he first inhabited this hermitage this was his unalterable rule of life, namely, to wear neither wool nor linen garments nor any other sort of soft material but he spent the whole of his solitary life wearing garments made of skins. So great indeed was the abstinence of his daily life, that from the time when he began to inhabit the desert, he ate no food of any kind except that after sunset he took a scrap of barley bread and a small cup of muddy water. For when the sun reached its western limits, then he thankfully tasted some little provision, for the needs of this mortal life.”
His pious and holy ascetic life became the talk of the land and many people visited Guthlac, to seek spiritual guidance from him. He gave sanctuary to Æthelbald, future king of Mercia, who was fleeing from his cousin Ceolred. Guthlac predicted that Æthelbald would become king and Æthelbald promised to build him an abbey if his prophecy became true. Æthelbald did become king and, even though Guthlac had died two years previously, kept his word and started construction of Crowland Abbey on St Bartholomew’s Day 716.
Felix’s text was written in around 740 and vividly describes the horrible attacks St Guthlac suffered by demons, who violently tormented him. is full of exciting battles with demons which are vividly described.
He also records Guthlac’s foreknowledge of his own death, conversing with angels in his last days. At the moment of death a sweet nectar-like odour emanated from his mouth, as his soul departed from his body in a beam of light while the angels sang. Guthlac had requested a lead coffin and linen winding sheet from Ecgburh, Abbess of Repton Abbey, so that his funeral rites could be performed by his sister St Pega. Arriving the day after his death, she found the island of Crowland filled with the scent of ambrosia. She buried the body on the mound after three days of prayer. A year later Pega had a divine calling to move the tomb and relics to a nearby chapel – Guthlac’s body was discovered incorrupt, his shroud shining with light. Subsequently Guthlac appeared in a miraculous vision to Æthelbald.
The cult of Guthlac continued amongst a monastic community at Crowland, with the eventual foundation of Crowland Abbey as a Benedictine Order in 971. Because of a series of fires at the abbey, few records survive. It is known that in 1136 the remains of Guthlac were moved once more and that finally in 1196 his shrine was placed above the main altar.